But for police gunshots that dispersed the riled-up mob, Olabiyi Olayemi, 35, was seconds away from being set ablaze over allegations of theft on Brown Street in the Oshodi area of Lagos in 2014.
The father of two went shopping with his elder sister’s colleague when they packed their car by a roadside around Oshodi market, leaving their driver to keep watch.
As they finished shopping and made their way into an adjoining street, they saw their car parked – or so they thought.
“We met the exact type of our car with the same colour, same brand, same model, same maker, same rim cover, parked and locked,” Mr Olayemi, a civil servant in Osogbo, Osun State, said. “The only difference was the number plate, which was also registered in the same state and LGA,” he would later find out.
The car was locked and the driver could not be found. Several attempts to reach him proved futile. Not this time again, he mumbled as he recalled a similar experience he had about a year earlier with the same driver.
At the time, their Toyota Sequoia parked by the road was left at the spot overnight after the driver went AWOL only to be later found in police custody. But by the time he returned the next day, the car had been burgled and vandalised with the driver’s side mirror broken, brain box, jack, car battery and two tyres and another extra one all stolen.
This time around, Mr Olayemi tried a bunch of extra keys on the car. None opened it. So he decided that towing the vehicle immediately was the best thing to do.
“The driver of the towing vehicle forcefully opened the door to release the gear and handbrake. It was while lifting the car up with the towing vehicle I saw people surrounding us,” Mr Olayemi, who was then a master’s student of computer engineering at Lagos State University, recalled.
“They started beating us. They didn’t even allow me to talk. I kept shouting and insisting ‘the car belongs to my boss.’”
It turned out the car was not the one he thought. His own was still parked on the next street where they originally parked it.
When the original car owner was asked to open the car, it opened. This was the height of trouble as, by his estimate, about 50 people started beating him and the driver of the towing vehicle, who passed out and would spend three months at the hospital before fully recuperating.
“They said they have been watching me trying to open the door with different keys. One said I was the one that stole his okada,” Mr Olayemi said.
He was beaten and robbed of his wristwatch, wallet, ring, shoes. There were those who were intentionally targeting his eyes and groin with a big plank. He shielded the blows with his hands, and one of his fingers is now slant.
He was ‘necklaced’ with a tyre doused in petrol.
“I was using the last breath in me to shout ‘I am not a thief. I am a student at LASU. I can never be a thief.’ I saw a man holding a matchbox. The next thing I heard was a gunshot from the police to disperse people. I was rescued to the police station.”
Police investigation found that it was a case of mistaken identity.
“When the two cars were placed side by side, the only distinguishing factor was the number plate,” Mr Olayemi said.
On that day, Mr Olayemi narrowly escaped death and also escaped joining fatalities from mob action which denies crime suspects their day in court.
Such mob action is a violation of the victim’s rights under sections 33, 34 and 36 of the Nigerian Constitution which respectively guarantee everyone the rights to life, to the dignity of the human person and to a fair hearing, an Abuja-based lawyer, Adeniyi Aderinboye, said.
“Not only are innocent people victims of jungle justice, it has caused their maim or even eventual death,” Ayomide Ilori, a security studies lecturer at Bamidele Olumilua University of Education, Science and Technology, Ekiti State, said. “It has punished mostly alleged petty thieves whom social inequality has deprived of basic needs.”
Mr Aderinboye added that when a group of persons takes laws into their hands by assaulting or summarily executing a suspected criminal, they are guilty of the offence of assault punishable by one-year imprisonment, or murder which is punishable by death under section 319 of the criminal code.
The lynching of suspected criminals happen often in Nigeria much that they have their own moniker: jungle justice.
A combination of rising crime rate, the inertia found in a dysfunctional and corrupt judiciary system, debased value system, and loss of confidence in law enforcement agencies are some of the reasons mob actions persist in the country.
Alleged offences that draw lynching range from crimes such as murder, armed robbery, rape, kidnapping, petty theft, blasphemy to even witchcraft.
While data are scant, a 2014 survey found that 43 per cent of Nigerians had personally witnessed a mob lynch a person. Nigeria and neighbouring Cameroon are said to have the highest rates of jungle justice in Africa, where at least one person faces mob rule at the hands of irate citizens for perceived crimes daily.
A research carried out by Mr Ilori, who is also a criminologist at the University of Ibadan, found that factors like insecurity, understaffed and ill-equipped police force are the drivers of jungle justice.
An overwhelmed police make neighbourhoods seek the service of vigilante groups for local security. With no proper regulation and training on the handling of civil matters, members of the group sometimes abet mob rule, he said.
“I discovered that people are not aware that the law only permits them to arrest people that break the law, but do not have the right to prosecute,” Mr Ilori told PREMIUM TIMES, adding that “recurrent patterns of uneven access to goods, wealth, opportunities, rewards will always innovate crime.”
Lagos State police spokesperson, Bala Elkana, declined calls seeking to know how they handle mob rule. So did the national spokesperson of the police, Frank Mba.
There is a disconnection between citizens and the police, and there is a lack of institutional trust in the police, so jungle justice is always spontaneous in neighbourhoods where grave crimes and petty crimes are high, he noted.
Mr Aderinboye added that due to inconsistent delivery of justice, courts closure as it currently is for over a month, high cost and long duration of prosecuting criminal cases, people prefer cheap and quick justice. That is why jungle justice thrives. But it is everything but justice, he said.
“The general populace holds a narrow belief that justice can be bought. This notion is understandable but largely untrue because, before the enactment of the Administration of Justice Act in 2015, the conclusion of an average criminal case takes between four to six years while a commercial dispute can take up to five years,” Mr Aderinboye noted.
The crime suspects, sometimes hogtied and stripped, are always beaten, wrapped in petrol-soaked tyres and then set ablaze or summarily extrajudicially killed. If some are lucky, they are turned over to the police but they must have been badly tortured.
Salaudeen Umar, 27, was a witness of such an incident in 2009 along Oke-Ado axis of Ibadan, where a kidnap suspect was stripped and her private part was peppered before she was turned in to the police. Last November, he witnessed another scene where a man was alleged to have stolen a generator and was beaten till he lost consciousness.
While these acts are on, there is usually someone nearby with a camera to record the grisly scene. In April, for instance, horrific photographs circulated on social media showing two men accused of a botched kidnap stripped and beaten in Wuse, Abuja. Those who opposed the beating were vilified.
Mr Olayemi said months after his experience, he saw a video of the macabre episode on social media. He had to write to the publisher before the video was pulled down.
While “fighting crime is essential to society (for) social integration and social regulation,” jungle justice is anything but just, Mr Ilori said.
The extent of jungle justice
Isaac Adebajo, 20, was planning to write his school certificate examination (WASCE) when he was waylaid, robbed and beaten for a reason he still does not know around the Masaka area of Nasarawa State.
He was home that weekend and was making his way back to school where he boarded when his attackers accosted him.
“I could not believe it because it happened like a shock. It nearly had a bad effect on my exams, but thanks to my mum who stood by me. It was not easy to get over the incident,” Mr Adebajo, a resident of Abuja, recalled.
Also, 13-year-old Aliah Oluokun, accused of theft by her boss, Suliyat Taofeek, last month, was allegedly subjected to horrific torture that included the use of a heated knife to inflict injuries on her body and spraying of fresh pepper into her private part which was also placed over hot coal. She spent over 10 days at the University Teaching Hospital (UCH), Ibadan for this.
Her father who is now demanding justice told this reporter he was happy that Ms Taofeek and her cohorts have been charged to court. “What we want is justice. Whatever is due to anyone who did what they did should be meted out on them,” he said.
In Mr Adebajo’s case, justice was never served. There are hopes that there would be justice in the case of young Aliah.
Likewise, justice may be expected after three suspects were arrested by Ogun State police command for allegedly beating a 23-year-old man to death over allegations that he stole two mobile phones. But the victim will not live to know if justice was served or not.
The mentality behind jungle justice
Far back in secondary school, Shegun Adetubo joined in the beating of an alleged phone thief, one he said he has made up with.
“All evidence was against this person’s claims of innocence. There seemed to be no way of making him confess, so I got angry and slapped him. He still didn’t comply then the beating continued until he confessed, and secretly gave it back to the owner,” he recalled.
Although Mr Adetubo would now “rather invest in self-development than look for a suspected criminal to beat,” he said mob action is the easiest form of confession. He blamed this on the corrupt criminal justice system which he describes as a “politically influenced system which punishes the poor but frees the rich.”
“No matter how much you preach to a community, they still trust the judgement of their hands more than that of the government (police), at worst they go to vigilantes,” Mr Adetubo said.
Mr Aderinboye disagrees. He said jungle justice is the quickest way to show callousness, anarchy and injustice.
Olusegun Ogunlade who witnessed a scene where a man was lynched for alleged theft in 2020 believes that while the fraught judicial system may hold water, the singular possibility of an innocent person being tortured for the wrong reason makes the act barbaric.
“The irony of the matter is while the same people laud politicians that loot the country’s treasury and impoverish them, they would be happy to kill another for stealing garri or N10. The Nigerian situation is indeed in need of a quick redemption,” he said.
‘Judicial reform is the way to go’
Mr Ilori, the criminologist, said the scourge can be stopped if the police are responsive enough to crime alert and they ensure that the opportunity to carry out crimes becomes very difficult for offenders.
“There is a need for institutional trust in the police and the judiciary. There should be a free and fair trial of the accused and quick dispensation of justice by the judiciary.
On his part, Mr Aderinboye urged the government to make efforts to regain public trust as “the prevalence of corruption, insecurity and unemployment has given the impression that we are in a lawless society and justice cannot be achieved in the present judicial dispensation.”
Both men also agreed that it is important to sensitise the public on how to handle alleged offenders.
“There is need for more sensitisation of the public on the provisions of the Administration of Justice Act 2015 which was enacted majorly to address the delay in the administration of justice in Nigeria,” Mr Aderinboye said.
He added that victims of jungle justice or their family members can seek redress in court by filing for a violation of their fundamental human rights and claim for damages.
Mr Olayemi, himself a disaster and risk management expert, survived the mob action of 2014 and his abusers have apologised. Not many are as lucky, as shown by the case of four college students who were wrongly accused of theft and killed by riled-up neighbours in Port Harcourt in 2012.
Mr Olayemi said he hopes with his story, more people will learn why there is a need to end jungle justice.
(This report was funded by the Civic Media Lab, under its Criminal Justice Reporting Fellowship, with support from MacArthur Foundation).